Anyone who follows this blog knows that my church holds to Strict and Particular Baptist polity. That is, we believe in a baptised membership, administered solely to those who have professed faith and grant communion to those who have come into membership of the local church. Those paedobaptists who would like to join our church, but will not in conscience get baptised, are all generally told the same thing: get baptised or find a paedobaptist church that will affirm your view.
But the world is messy and the reality on the ground is often not the way we would like things to be. As much as I believe everybody should be baptised upon profession of faith and joined to a local church, I also believe that it is wrong to force people to go against their conscience. The problem we have is when the ability to join the local church and a sensitive conscience come together.
In the most part, there are other options. But what do we do when all available options are a problem. These are the cases we might call ‘pastoral exceptions.’ The times when, for pastoral reasons, we set aside what would otherwise be pretty hard and fast rules. When might we make a pastoral exception in relation to membership? Specific circumstances are too numerous to lay out every possible situation but let me land on a few I have come across.
An Anglican lay preacher forced out of his church for continuing to preach the gospel. There were no other Bible-believing Anglican churches in the locality and – as in most of England – no Presbyterian church to which they could go. Whilst there were broadly Evangelical Methodist churches around that would affirm paedobaptism, they were theologically problematic in certain areas and were evidently not Reformed. He would have preferred to remain in the Church of England, going to an Anglican church that believed the gospel and would affirm his paedobaptism, but no such local church existed. So, he turned to the local S&P Baptist church.
An Anglican minister who, believing the Church of England as an institution has so far departed orthodoxy and is unredeemable, seeking to back out of a denomination he now deems unfaithful to Christ. As a convinced Reformed believer, he cannot countenance going to a Methodist Arminian church and sees many of the same issues replicated therein at any rate. Again, as in most of England, there is no Reformed Presbyterian church to attend anywhere nearby. The only Reformed churches left to consider are S&P Baptists in the vicinity.
A church with an historically loose constitution has admitted a wide range of people into membership, including those who have not been baptised. Some, who were baptised as infants, were admitted to membership. Since then, the church has tightened up its membership criteria and determined that only baptised believers should be welcomed into membership. The church must make a decision as to whether to retroactively apply its new constitutional position or determine that, though it is less than ideal, it will not add further paedobaptists to membership whilst counting those in membership as pastoral exceptions to the rule.
These are just indicative examples. There are a whole host of potential other examples where you might find a pastoral exception. Some of these examples, if even a few of the finer details are different, may not amount to exceptions at all. These things are pastorally determined.
But the basic position is that these things are exceptional. The aim is not to allow those who haven’t been baptised into membership but to recognise that there are times that it would be wrong to force somebody to break conscience and wrong to effectively dechurch somebody altogether. It would still be the intent to push them toward baptism and see if their conscience would, indeed, bend on the issue. But in those exceptional and rare situations where one’s conscience will not bend and there is no credible church for them to attend that would admit them to membership, sometimes exceptions need to be made when situations are sub-optimal.